The video opened with stick-straight rows of masked fighters holding assault rifles and staring straight ahead at the black-and-white al Qaeda flag. In the next scene, militant fighters jumped through metal rings circled with fire and escaped the impact of an explosion. They used a photo of Syrian President Bashar Assad for target practice.
The footage had all the makings of an al Qaeda propaganda video, but it was, in fact, the first two minutes of Wednesday’s Al Jazeera Arabic interview with Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. In the last of a two-part interview with Egyptian journalist Ahmed Mansour, Joulani discussed foreigners fighting with al Qaeda in Syria, blamed Iran for the current sectarian conflict in the region and dismissed any rumors of a future merger between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State group.
"We will be the first soldiers for an Islamic government that implements Shariah," Joulani said, his face covered with a black cloth, wearing a checkered shirt and sitting with his back to the camera. Mansour faced him; in between them was a table with an al Qaeda flag atop it.
Jabhat al-Nusra comprises roughly 30 percent foreign fighters, including “some Americans,” according to Joulani. In the areas it controls, the militant group also runs schools where children are “learning about jihad."
Jabhat al-Nusra has been active in Syria since 2012 and used to include the Islamic State group until the two terror groups split in 2013. Since then, ISIS has killed roughly 700 Nusra fighters, Joulani said.
There was a “lack of commitment in some of the issues between IS and us,” Joulani said. He added that there would be no reconciliation between the two groups unless they return to the Sunni people. He said ISIS was not acting in the name of Sunni Islam, but he stopped short of calling them “kafirs,” or infidels.
Much of Joulani’s rhetoric pushed the idea that the region’s Sunni population was under threat from Shiite superpower Iran and its widespread and varied proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. An estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of Iran itself is Sunni.
"The calm inside Iran helps it spread outside,” Joulani said. "We will be satisfied with cutting Iran's hands in the region."
In the first part of the interview that aired last month, Joulani claimed that al Qaeda’s core leadership had instructed him to refrain from attacking the West from Syria and that he intended to obey those orders.
"The U.S. is engaged in an intelligence war," Joulani said. "It will kill a leader here and a leader there. America wants to push Iran into a war with us, with al-Qaeda."
Joulani reiterated that Nusra’s aim in Syria is to support the various rebel groups fighting the Syrian regime. The decisive battle will be the one for Damascus, he said.
"There is a big battle coming. When, where, and how, we don't know yet,” Joulani said. "The battle is happening in a complex framework. Everything happening is a conspiracy against Sunnis."